San Francisco’s inmate population has swelled to over 1,000 people for the first time since pre-pandemic levels, prompting the city to reopen parts of its largest jail.
Tucked away in a quiet San Bruno neighborhood 30 minutes south of San Francisco, the city’s largest lockup, officially called County Jail #3, houses hundreds of people suspected of committing crimes.
In recent months, the San Francisco Police Department, District Attorney’s Office and Mayor London Breed announced a slew of enforcement initiatives that have led to increased arrests–particularly for drug crimes. In response to the growing jail population, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department has expanded capacity at County Jail #3 by opening dormitory-style rooms.
The Standard visited the jail to see what it’s like on the inside and to ask how the Sheriff’s Department, which says it’s suffered from short-staffing, is faring as the population rises.
Many of the walls inside the jail are painted pastel blue, and inmates wear orange shirts, pants and shoes.
Inmates—many housed two to a cell—were working out, sleeping, listening to music, reading or watching TV. A few appeared to be talking to themselves while others talked on landline phones, which are free to use.
Lt. Linda Bui, who showed The Standard around, said inmates are housed according to the jail’s assessment of their danger to others or based on gang affiliation.
“We call them security threat groups, what people normally consider a gang. … We make sure we don’t commingle them,” Bui said.
The two cellblocks seen by The Standard were surveilled by guards in a crow’s nest and by cameras pointed in virtually every direction. The cells were encased in glass for visibility, and steel lunch tables engraved with chess boards dotted the room.
Each cell is just big enough to fit a bunk bed, toilet, sink, desk and a narrow space to move around. Some inmates who were assigned top bunks had moved their mattresses and were sleeping on the floor.
On one of the cellblocks, up to 50 inmates share a single shower that’s separated from the communal room by a curtain.
Inmates are typically allowed to leave their cells between 8:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., Bui said.
A class action lawsuit filed in 2019 alleged the city violated the Constitution's Eighth and 14th Amendments by failing to provide inmates sunlight. Court documents say that many inmates were on 23-hour lockdowns at the San Bruno jail. In October, a judge ordered the city to provide inmates with access to 15 minutes of direct sunlight every day.
Bui acknowledged that staffing was tight but said the sheriff’s department still manages to fulfill its duties by letting each inmate out of their cells for 10 hours a week.
“We well exceed that on pretty much a daily basis,” Bui said.
The recently reopened annex, which The Standard was unable to visit, is a lower security facility that sleeps up to 50 inmates in a single room.
Between May 29 and Nov. 6, San Francisco police seized roughly 121 pounds of fentanyl while making 705 arrests for public drug use and 465 arrests for drug dealing. Meanwhile, state and federal authorities have also descended on the city, making arrests.
The uptick in drug arrests has corresponded with an increase in the local jail population. Bui told The Standard that she witnesses many inmates who are routinely re-incarcerated because of their addiction.
The city’s law enforcement approach to combat addiction and public drug use has drawn controversy, as critics say the policy may be driving overdoses. Those critics argue that when people are forced to use drugs in hiding, they’re less likely to be saved from an overdose. They also contend overdoses are more likely to occur after periods of abstinence in jail.
Fatal overdoses are on track to hit historic highs this year, with 620 people dying from drugs in the first nine months of 2023, according to preliminary reports from San Francisco’s Chief Medical Examiner’s Office.
However, others argue that the city has failed its most vulnerable residents by allowing them to use deadly drugs with inadequate intervention. Moreover, Police Chief Bill Scott contends his department is obliged to address concerns about the city’s visible drug markets.
Bui told The Standard that some of the inmates under her watch only become sober enough to see their children while they’re in jail.
“You become like their therapist. ... Maybe I can talk them into not going back to jail,” Bui said. “Safety and security are important. … But ultimately, we all want to reduce the jail population.”
David Sjostedt can be reached at email@example.com